A Quiet Oasis: The library’s Nemec Courtyard Sensory Garden

Montage of plants and a patio table with umbrella; and Kelly Larson with potted plants in the Nemec Courtyard
Five women pose in the duPont Ball Library
The Library gardeners include, left to right: Elizabeth Martino, Melissa Fleming, Laura Kirkland, Jackee Brame and Debbi Dinkins.

In the spring of 2019, Debbi Dinkins, a librarian at the duPont-Ball Library, was looking out of the window of her office at the Nemec Courtyard and thinking about ways to make the courtyard more appealing for students. 

The Nemec Courtyard sits adjacent to the library on the north side of the building. Since 2000, when it was built as part of the library renovation and expansion project, the courtyard has featured wrought iron patio tables and a few sculpted ivy planters.  Students used the area for studying and relaxing, but the environment was not an appealing one. 

“It was very stark,” said Dinkins, “because it was all cement.” 

A hobby gardener, Dinkins started researching libraries with gardens, especially university libraries. In recent years, many public libraries have added garden spaces for their patrons. 

“I did not find many academic libraries with outdoor garden spaces,” Dinkins said. She thought the idea had potential, especially if donor funding was available. Further research located the book, “Libraries & Gardens: Growing Together,” by Carrie Scott Banks and Cindy Mediavilla. This book offered a wealth of information, especially about sensory gardens.

Flowers in Nemec Garden

Sensory gardens are designed to stimulate all five senses as well as less familiar senses, such as proprioception, which is the perception of one’s body in relation to one’s environment. Including wind chimes and plants with differing textures stimulate audio and tactile senses. Proprioception is stimulated by including different walking surfaces or offering different seating levels. Dinkins was sure that a sensory garden would appeal to students and other library users, and would also be a project to attract donors and the library’s other administrators.

Sue Ryan

Susan Ryan, the dean of the duPont-Ball Library, immediately recognized the potential benefits of such a space. Ryan said, “the idea fit in well with the library’s Strategic Plan titled, ‘Library Disrupted: Change by Design.’ Elements of that plan included ‘Optimize Space for Maximum Impact’ and ‘Design the Library to Support the Neuro-Diverse Student.’  Students with different sensitivities use the library, and an outdoor space that deliberately created an appealing and peaceful environment filled with natural light would enhance the library’s indoor spaces in which the possibilities of design changes were more limited.”

Kelly Larson stands beside potted plants and hanging flower pot.
Library gardener Kelly Larson shows a few of the many plants in the sensory garden.

Ryan also had ideas about donor funding for the project. The duPont-Ball Library’s Innovation Endowment, established by a gift from Betty Johnson, alumna, former director of the duPont-Ball Library and current Board of Trustee member, was designed to support out-of-the box thinking about libraries. Johnson loved the idea, and the sensory garden project had a green light.

Dinkins sent an email to library staff and faculty, asking for volunteers at the end of the Spring semester 2019.  She was overwhelmed with the number of people who responded. “Almost immediately, people were volunteering and they were excited about the project.”  With a volunteer team of nine members with gardening expertise, ranging from expert to beginner, planning and researching began in May of 2019.

Flower pots sit on a patio table in the Nemec Courtyard

“We consulted area experts at the DeLand Garden Club,” said Dinkins. Members of the Garden Club met with the library gardeners, giving them suggestions about plants and planters, as well as explaining the components of a sensory garden. The DeLand Garden Club built and maintains a sensory butterfly garden at Bill Dreggors Park. The library gardeners also partnered with Stetson’s Facilities Management on maintenance of the garden space.

Plants fill a plant stand in front of a patio table with umbrella

Over the summer of 2019, the library garden group worked hard to add plants and other features (fountains, wind chimes, whimsical planters, garden statues and a canopy) to the courtyard space. Gradually, through hard work both on and off the clock, the garden began to take shape. 

“The Nemec Courtyard is a bookable space for receptions and meetings,” said Dinkins. Therefore, the courtyard area was divided into three themed zones. One zone is a Zen garden area with a tent, garden statues and a minimalist feel. The middle zone features plants and seating on the edges of the space to accommodate gatherings and catering. The third zone is more sensory with vegetables, texturized plants that invite touch and smell, and a succulent garden. “We wanted to appeal to as many people as possible and offer spaces for relaxing, gathering and quiet study,” said Dinkins. 

The student reaction at the beginning of the Fall 2019 semester was immediate and positive. “So many students, faculty and staff asked us about the garden,” said Dinkins. “We would be working on the plants and students would walk through and say things like, ‘I love this garden. When did you put this together?’” Members of the library garden group were pleased and encouraged by the student reaction. 

A bell hangs from the garden wall
A bell hangs from a garden wall.

The garden has been in place for a year and a half, and maintenance tasks have kept the garden group members busy. From weeding, watering, replacing plants, and removing leaves and debris, there is always something that needs attention. Future plans include another fountain, new plantings and more seating. 

“Every time I walk through the garden, I see students and other library users in the space. This has been a wonderful addition to the library and to Stetson’s campus,” said Dinkins. “The students seem to love it.”

Even when most of the university was working, teaching and learning remotely, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, library staff stopped by to care for the garden.  As we move slowly but steadily to more people back on campus, the garden is getting more attention and will be refreshed as we move into the spring growing season.  Stop by, sit and relax in the library’s quiet, reflective oasis.